13 February 2008

A Week is a Long Time in Politics

They say a week is long time in politics and in Holyrood last week that cliché rang true. Amongst the dramatic events were Scottish Labour Leader, Wendy Alexander being reported to the Procurator Fiscal by the Scottish Parliament’s Standards Commissioner for failing to declare donations, and later receiving a controversial ‘not proven’ type decision from the Electoral Commission on her illegal donations. But without a shadow of a doubt, the single event which defined this as an unforgettable week in Scottish politics was the passing of Scotland’s first ever SNP Budget.

This Budget was a true triumph for the SNP but moreover for the people of Scotland. First and foremost it will give local authorities their spending budgets from Holyrood, allowing them to freeze council tax. It will also see a further 1,000 new police officers recruited by March 2011 plus an extra £4.3 million pumped into the Climate Change Fund and £4 million in 2008-09 to protect bus services and keep fares down.

But one of the biggest Budget success stories is one for small businesses that will see their business rates slashed. To add to the earlier good news, Cabinet Secretary for Finance, John Swinney announced last week that from April next year up to 120,000 small businesses will pay no business rates at all and a further 30,000 will see their rates cut by between 25% and 50%. This will reduce overheads considerably for small businesses in Banff & Buchan, enabling them to compete with the multinationals and chains that threaten the future viability of our high streets. This boost will go a long way to encouraging small business start-up and growth and to revitalising our town and village centres across Banff & Buchan.

This budget did not pass without a little suspense and one or two surprises. Not least of these surprises was Labour’s baffling behaviour when it came to decision time. In a completely incoherent move by the Labour Party, after criticising the Budget and then having their amendment accepted by Parliament, they chose to abstain from actually voting on the whole budget package, including their own amendment.

When it came to the crunch, rather than vote in the best interests of the Scottish people to pass the Budget, Labour well and truly bottled it. It is clear that the Labour Party in Scotland now stand in utter disarray with a Leader whose credibility has been seriously undermined and with no clear position on the issues that matter most to the Scottish public – our country’s finances and how they are best managed for the good of the people.

The mood around Parliament was palpable. On the SNP floors, it was one of anticipation in the beginning of the week followed by joyous celebration when the Budget had been delivered. Amongst Labour and Lib Dem Members the atmosphere was one of disarray prior to the vote followed by sheer embarrassment afterwards. In the face of such a comprehensive and successful Budget they were left with little to say to justify their dysfunctional behaviour. The SNP has delivered a budget for the best interests of Scotland’s people to make Scotland safer, greener, fairer, healthier and more prosperous.

A Farewell to Bridge Tolls
Indeed the SNP Government were fulfilling their commitments to the Scottish public on many fronts this week. One more example was the scrapping of bridge tolls on the Forth and Tay bridges. After more than forty years of tolls, drivers using these bridge can now travel free of charge. This will considerably reduce costs for those travelling over the bridge every day and indeed for those travelling to Edinburgh from the North East. Abolishing bridge tolls was a significant SNP manifesto commitment and when elected to Government it was the first primary legislation to be passed by the new SNP administration. It is yet another example of the SNP wasting no time in delivering on their promises for the people of Scotland.

5 February 2008

Lottery Looting

Local community initiatives and good causes in Scotland were dealt a severe blow last week by Scottish Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs. Casting their constituents’ interests to one side, these MPs voted to effectively raid a further £675 million from National Lottery Funds in order to meet the spiralling costs of the 2012 London Olympics.

What this boils down to for Scotland is a loss of lottery money which will now be diverted to finance the London Olympics. Good causes such as community projects, community halls, sports groups and charities, of which I am pleased to say there are many in Banff & Buchan, rely heavily upon regular lottery funding. This loss will be acutely felt by these organisations. In total, communities across the UK are set to lose over £2 billion to the games – around £35 per person. Locally, Aberdeenshire will lose out on about £8.5 million in key lottery funding.

While I have no doubt of the positive impact of the Olympics itself, and indeed I would even hope to see local athletes competing in the games, good causes in Scotland cannot be jeopardised to cover its rising costs. Labour and the Lib Dems must learn that we cannot rob Peter to pay Paul.

Though this move by Labour and the Lib Dems is inexcusable it is not surprising. Time and again these parties exhibit a major lack of ambition for Scotland and a failure to focus on and prioritise Scottish interests in the UK context. This is just another example. Does the regeneration of east London matter more to these MPs than good causes in their own constituencies in Scotland? The SNP will not compromise Scotland’s best interests, not in Westminster nor in Holyrood.

Celebrating our National Bard
On a lighter note, I had the pleasure over the past fortnight of attending three Burns suppers – in Strichen, in Peterhead and, slightly farther a field, in Paris.

I thoroughly enjoyed the festivities both at home and abroad. Amongst the guests at the high-profile Paris event were Scottish singer Eddi Reader and the head honcho from Louis Vuitton, a friend of the French President. I was very proud to represent Scotland at this international celebration of our country and our culture. And it was clear from the evening that the worldwide curiosity and interest in Scotland now that the SNP are in Government is immense.

Indeed, I always enjoy this time of year which affords us the chance to come together in our communities and in our homes to celebrate our much loved national Bard; to celebrate Scotland's rich culture and history. And this year the festivities were all the more memorable as we had the opportunity to reflect upon what has been a truly momentous year for Scotland.
In the SNP’s short time in power we have seen enormous progress, nationally and locally. In Banff & Buchan we have secured the future of Peterhead Prison, cut business rates for small businesses, secured a landmark deal for fishermen in Brussels and opened the way for a historic council tax freeze, to mention but a few achievements.
And we've seen things not happen. Westminster has conceded our strength, and the strength of wider Scottish opinion, when its plans for new nuclear power stations included precisely none on our soil.
Burns was a true visionary before his time, and now more than two hundred years on, the SNP are realising his vision for a fair, just and free society for Scotland.

Stewart Stevenson
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